Oregon boasts a large number of wonderful state parks. Over the 30-plus years of living here, I've visited quite a few. But one had lingered on my bucket list for awhile - Cottonwood Canyon State Park.
Established in 2013, Cottonwood Canyon is Oregon's newest state park. Located in the north-central portion of the state, it's area encompasses 8000 acres, giving Cottonwood Canyon the distinction of being the second largest state park in Oregon. Located in a winding canyon along the John Day River, it's wide-open views and drier climate appeal to folks hoping to escape the rainy Willamette Valley.
|My cute cabin|
I'd heard glowing reviews about Cottonwood Canyon SP. The stunning scenery, abundant wildlife, and wild remote nature of the area appealed to me. Several picturesque hiking trails had been established that I was eager to explore. Also, I'd heard spring was a great time to visit, before the sweltering heat of summer.
|Loved the custom signs|
The only lodging at Cottonwood Canyon was a 21-site campground and four primitive cabins. Since I wasn't keen on tent camping in the chilly spring, I'd tried to obtain a cabin reservation. But with only four cabins total, competition was stiff. I discovered securing a coveted cabin reservation was difficult, especially on the weekends. Last year, I decided to take some vacation time and go during a weekday, and was finally successful. But....my reservation was for late March.....right when COVID reared it's ugly head. Unfortunately all camping reservations were cancelled and Oregon ended up closing all state parks from March through June. It was looking as if I'd never get to visit this place!
Fast forward to early 2021. Most of the state parks now reopened, I decided to try again for a cabin. Now retired, I had much more flexibility and could pick any weekday that might be open. I found making a weekday reservation much easier (as long as one plans ahead a few months) and scored a cabin for two nights in mid-March. Yeah! Cottonwood Canyon, here I come!
|Nice place to relax|
Although on the map Cottonwood Canyon seemed a far distance from Portland, in reality the drive took just under three hours. Climbing a high ridge above the town of Wasco, I was met with a bizarre sight - hundreds of modern wind turbines spinning and views of Mt Adams. The last place I'd have cell reception, I then descended down a long, winding hill to the John Day River. Turning into the park entrance I felt waves of excitement. I was finally here!
|Old corral with artwork|
The parking area for cabin visitors was a short walk from the cabins, so the park had thoughtfully provided a metal wagon for each occupant to haul their gear. Unloading was done quickly and painlessly. Each cabin had a wildlife-themed name, after the predominant animals found at the park. My assigned cabin was named the "Cliff Swallow." And, let me tell you, I was blown away by how nice it was! The cabin had two rooms, one with two bunk beds and a double bed. The second room had a table and chairs, a futon, shelves and a rack to hang clothing, and an armoire with a mini fridge. The cabin had electricity, heating, and air conditioning. Outside each cabin had a picnic table and gas grill (cooking was not allowed inside).
|More cool signage|
After unpacking and admiring my home for the next two nights, I grabbed my sandwich and sat out on the covered porch, taking in the wide open spaces. From my cabin's porch I had a great view of the river and surrounding canyon walls.
|Old homestead |
The only downside to the day - high winds were whipping through the area. The winds were so strong and cold, I had to bundle up when going outside. But after so many years of trying to get here I wasn't about to let a little bad weather stop me from exploring!
|Another view of the barn|
The current state park property was the site of a former ranch. Some of the ranch buildings had been left in place, and preserved for the public. With camera in hand, I wandered around the old ranch, taking photos of the weathered, red barn and windmill. Along one fence, an interpretive display had been created, explaining the history of the area, starting with the local Native American tribes.
The old ranch house had been converted into a visitor center, and the mask-wearing public were allowed inside. I perused the brochures and photos on the wall and then headed back outdoors. Not only did the state park have beautifully crafted metal and wood signs everywhere, there were also custom made log chairs outside the visitor center, if folks wanted to sit and relax.
|Campground view from the ridge (my cabin is the one furthest to the left)|
Across the road from the park sign, I spotted a trail heading up the adjacent slope. Following it uphill I came to an overlook, complete with bench and flowering fruit tree. The views from up here were wonderful. I could see the entire ranch, campground, and four cabins in a row.
|One of the nicest trailheads I've ever seen!|
After a bit of exploring, it was time to check out one of the hiking trails. After all, that's what I'd come here to do! I was also hoping to catch some of the wildlife this park was famous for - most notably the bighorn sheep. I walked through the campground to the trailhead for the Pinnacles Trail - and found one of the nicest trailhead signs I think I've ever seen.
|John Day River|
The Pinnacles Trail followed the north bank of the John Day River for 4.3 miles. However, due to Golden Eagles nesting in the nearby cliffs, the trail was currently closed at mile 3. No matter, there was plenty to see as I ambled along with the river on one side and tall rocky cliffs on the other. Although I'd hoped to see some bighorn sheep on these cliffs, the blustery weather seemed to keep them away.
|Rocky trail next to cliffs|
I'd read that cliff swallows made their nests on these rocky crags. On my return trip, I spotted a few of their empty nests stuck in the rock crevices. No birds yet though - it apparently wasn't nesting season for them.
Funneled through the river's canyon, the wind absolutely howled. It was bone-chilling and I'd donned my down jacket, knit hat and gloves. The cloudy flat skies made terrible conditions for photography. But, again, I'd traveled here to see the sights and no amount of bad weather was gonna stop me.
|Sweeping river scenery|
For mid-March I hadn't expected to see so much color from the vegetation. The adjacent hillsides were beginning to turn green, and bushes along the John Day River's banks were a stunning orange-rust hue. Dried grasses sported lovely shades of gold.
|Colorful vegetation along the river|
Being midweek, there weren't many people staying at Cottonwood Canyon SP. I did encounter a couple of fisherman (apparently fly fishing is popular on the John Day River) and one group of hikers that included the camp host, who told me she'd seen bighorn sheep on the cliffs every day but today.
|View from the Pinnacles Trail|
After hiking the Pinnacles Trail out and back from the Eagle closure, I logged about 7 miles. Adding that to my earlier wanderings I was tuckered out. I'd considered capturing sunset from the overlook, but the overcast skies didn't look promising. So I returned to my cabin to heat up some soup for dinner.
|Amazing sunset my first night|
Imagine my surprise when the skies later erupted in a blaze of orange, pink and blue! And best, of all, I was able to capture it from my cabin's front door. A great way to end my first day at Cottonwood Canyon.
I had another long hike planned for tomorrow, and hopefully I'd see those elusive bighorn sheep! Coming in my next post......